Why You Should Ask Users to Test Your Website on Their Own Devices

Meet your users where they're at.

What does testing a website mean?

Testing a website means ensuring that it’s usable and accessible for your users. If parts of your library’s website don’t work—for example, if the layout of the search results is confusing, or clicking the chat button doesn’t do anything—then your users’ trust in your library will decrease, and they may be incentivized to look elsewhere to find help or get access to materials.

How can you make sure your website works for your users? Test it! This is what usability testing is all about: finding out which parts of your website are confusing or just don’t work. Conducting regular usability studies with real users is important for ensuring that your website works for them.

In a nutshell, usability testing involves asking around five users to complete a short list of common tasks on your website (like finding a book by title), and then observing what they do without stepping in to help them. Ask them to tell you what they’re thinking throughout the task, and listen for things that are confusing or mismatches between their expectations and your website’s functionality. This kind of user research will help you identify usability issues on your website. Correcting them will improve your users’ experience of your website and, by extension, your library.

Websites look and behave differently on different devices

You probably use your library’s website on the same device every workday. Maybe that’s a certain desktop computer or laptop. Occasionally, you might use your mobile phone or the desktop computer at the reference desk. Between those three devices, the library website might look a little different—the screen widths may differ, and the content may rearrange itself on your mobile device.

Screenshots of an Internet Archive page. From left to right: mobile, tablet, laptop
Screenshots of an Internet Archive page. From left to right: mobile, tablet, laptop

With just three devices, you’re already seeing a range of how the website looks and behaves. Now imagine how many kinds of devices your patrons are using. The many different sizes of screens, the many models of mobile devices, the different browsers, and even the different speeds of various networks. What is the experience of using the library’s website like in these different scenarios? How would you know?

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Ask users to test your website using their own device!

When you conduct a usability study, ask participants to bring the device they usually use when using the library website (if it’s portable). You’ll get a glimpse of their real experience of your website.

Users’ personal devices are just that: personal. They’ve set up their mobile devices, tablets, or laptops with the settings and software they need to get their work done. You’ll benefit from seeing how your website performs across a variety of browsers, screen sizes, operating systems, plugins, etc. For example, some users have installed popular browser plugins that force dark mode. How does your website look with that plugin enabled? You might not make any actual design changes for this subset of patrons who are using an external plugin, but seeing it might still be illuminating, so to speak.

Screenshot of an Internet Archive page in a browser that has a dark mode plugin enabled.
Screenshot of an Internet Archive page in a browser that has a dark mode plugin enabled.

In addition, users feel most comfortable with their usual device. We once provided just a Mac laptop for a usability test, and some users were unsure how to scroll. (This isn’t a knock on those users. I personally find the “natural” scrolling direction of Macs to be difficult.) In a usability study, you want participants to be as comfortable as possible so that they can focus on the task, not on the quirks of the testing device or environment.

A bonus you might encounter: seeing assistive technologies at work! Some users with vision impairments might increase the size of the text, some may enable a dyslexic-friendly font, or some may use text-to-speech software to read the text of the page aloud. If you’re interested in seeing how your website performs with assistive tech like this, you might specifically recruit users of it, or at least note that it’s okay, and even encouraged, to use it during the usability testing session.

Of course, not every user has a device to bring, so always bring a backup device! For example, provide both a Mac laptop and a Windows laptop. Include a mouse, since a laptop’s trackpad may be hard to use for some.

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